Books on books seem to have become a genre unto itself within the expanding world of photobooks. Beginning with Fotografía Pública and The Book of 101 Books, the genre was given its most comprehensive treatment with Gerry Badger and Martin Parr's groundbreaking work, The Photobook Vol. 1 and 2 (I've read a third volume is on the way), and continued with Aperture’s recent volumes on Japan and Latin America, as well as their upcoming releases on Dutch and Chinese photobooks. This list is by no means comprehensive, but points to an increased engagement with and scholarship around the photobook, as well as a belated critical acknowledgement of the important role they've played in the medium's history. The most recent addition to these new publications, Swiss Photobooks From 1927 to the Present, focuses its attention on the varied books produced by Swiss photographers. From Robert Frank to Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, the book covers impressive ground and offers unique insight into the history of Swiss photography and photobooks.
In many ways, the history of Swiss photobooks follows the trajectory of European photography. The book is not strictly limited to books produced in Switzerland, but includes books like Frank's The Americans which was first printed in France and then the United States. There are a number of familiar dust jackets, but there are also a lot of lesser-known books and names, as well as some surprises, like a book by Le Corbusier on airplanes from 1935, which is exciting. From such canonical figures as René Burri, Robert Frank and Jakob Tuggener, to more contemporary practitioners such as Fischl/Weiss, Jules Spinatsch and Shirana Shahbazi, the book covers a wide range of different types of books from the documentary/anthropological and technical/scientific to the more intentionally and self-consciously artistic books. The book is a reminder of how many excellent Swiss photographers there are and have been, and how much they've contributed to the medium.
I'm as much of a sucker for these books as any bibliophile and photobook devotee. There is something deliriously appealing about discovering so many new books and seeing images of books presented in this manner, but I wonder what is in store for this genre, if it is even a genre. How many more books on books do we need? Will these books begin to be included in similar volumes as meta-entries on important books on books in future anthologies? Or even a book entirely devoted to books on books? Perhaps somewhere Borges is smiling. A temporarily amusing and admittedly snarky thought, but it misses what is really great about these anthologies. As the book market becomes more and more inundated with limited edition books selling out overnight, books quickly disappearing into private collections, and older volumes becoming prohibitively expensive or rare, we run the risk of many important books falling out of the hands of the people to whom they might matter most – namely other photographers, students and artists, especially those with limited financial means. Ironically, these anthologies have become buying guides for collectors – exacerbating the very problems they might help to alleviate.
In addition to important reprints, publishers like Eratta Editions have done a great deal to address this issue. Books like Swiss Photobooks From 1927 to the Present help too and offer us a glimpse into what has been arguably the primary vehicle for photographs in the 19th and 20th century – the printed page. Although only a few spreads are generally included, each book is given generous space and critical treatment within the book and text. Seeing the books in this way can never replace the original object, but it brings us a little closer and allows us to see a little of the photographs, design and context of the book. Photographers have long known the importance of photobooks to the medium and their practice, so it is nice to see them continuing to receive the sustained critical feedback and legitimate place in photo history that they deserve.
With over 600 pages, and weighing close to eight pounds, the book is daunting in its scale and size. While the primary text is in German, there are French and English translations in the appendix. For non-German readers, this makes navigating the book a little tricky, but that is more of a personal failing than one of the book. The essays are all very good and have been assembled from numerous scholars – including Sarah Greenough, Urs Stahel and Peter Pfrunder, the books editor. In addition to addressing each book, they also cover specific time periods and developments within Swiss photography. Photographers and scholars, especially ones who have a little extra room on their bookshelves, should check out this impressive book.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.